Thursday, April 12, 2007

Doctor Who Season 3 - "The Shakespeare Code"

Gareth Roberts, writer of this week's episode, has written a lot of "Doctor Who" fiction, but this is his first full-length episode - if you've going to start somewhere, start in the best place possible: with Shakespeare. OK, I admit it, I'm "mad about the Bard", and not everyone is, but this episode is fantastic. The Doctor, at the end of "Smith and Jones" offered Martha the chance to take a one-off trip in the TARDIS as thanks for saving his life after the Plasmavore nearly killed him, and so he can road-test his new Sonic Screwdriver (having fried the previous one in an attempt to stop the Plasmavore's Slab minion). So off they pop, in the TARDIS, and land (bumpily - causing Martha to ask the Doctor if he needs to take a test to fly it - yes, he says, but I failed it!) in 1599, not far from Shakespeare's newly built Globe Theatre, London. Martha's already asked how the TARDIS travels in time (she must be the first Companion to ask this - at least in a long while, if ever), then after they step out of the TARDIS, she worries about whether it's safe for them to move around. What happens if she steps on a butterfly (an allusion to Ray Bradbury's short story A Sound of Thunder), or kills her grandfather (known as the "grandfather paradox") - a question that seems to baffle the Doctor, but given the effects of Rose's intervention to save her father's life in "Father's Day", it's not an entirely foolish question! Then Martha worries she might be carried off as a slave, since she's "not exactly white", leading the Doctor to remark that he's "not exactly human" and to advise her to just walk around as if she owns the place, "it always works for me" he says.

Having established when and where they are, the Doctor invites "Miss Jones" to go to the theatre with him, and she replies that she'd love to - calling him "Mr Smith" (the pseudonym he'd used when he met Martha). I liked this as it's a reference back to Martha's insistence that the Doctor has to earn his title from her (the trainee doctor). I hope she continues to call him that at least for a little while longer. The two head off to the Globe to see Love's Labours Lost, which they seem to enjoy, although Martha's impatient to see the genius himself, Will Shakespeare, and starts shouting "Author! Author!" (she asks the Doctor if people shouted that then, but her cry has already been taken up by the audience, leading the Doctor to observe laconically "Well they do now.")

In the meantime, there's a beautiful young woman up in one of the galleries who's working a spell on Shakespeare via a voodoo-style puppet. She provokes him into announcing that the following night will see the premiere of his sequel to the play "Love's Labours Won". Which puzzles Martha and the Doctor, because no copies of it exist in Martha's time, although the Doctor acknowledges it's mentioned in contemporary lists of Shakespeare's plays. He decides they'd better investigate before he takes Martha back home, and they go to chat to Shakespeare, who's not interested in talking to the Doctor, but when he spots Martha's eager face peering around the Doctor's shoulder, is immediately entranced and invites them to join him.

The young woman from the gallery is now working as a serving girl at the inn ("The Elephant") where Martha and the Doctor have gone to see Shakespeare, and when the Master of Revels arrives, demanding to see a copy of the script of "Love's Labours Won" in order to approve of it, Shakespeare reveals he hasn't actually finished the play. Lynley insists that the play will not go ahead and tells Will that's he off to issue a banning order. The serving girl immediately pulls out her puppet and uses it to kill Lynley, causing him to drown (she fills his lungs with water). The Doctor realises that witchcraft is at work, and tries to work out how it's being worked. He and Martha are lying on a bed in the inn at this point - she's trying to flirt with him, but he totally ignores that, focusing on trying to work out what's going on. He says that Rose would have said exactly the right thing at this moment to make him realise what was staring him in the face (at that point, Martha!), and Martha's face falls. When he reminds her that he'll be taking her back home in the morning, she blows out the candle in annoyance. But they're not going to get a quiet night - the woman (Lilith) with the puppet is back and armed with a potion which she uses to influence Will so that he will write a "spell" into the end of the play, which will set Lilith and her "sisters" (a race of aliens called the Carrionites) free from their eternal imprisonment - the 14-sided Globe working to amplify the power of Will's words (Lilith's spell) to break them free.

What I loved about this episode:

- Shakespeare - Dean Lennox Kelley plays him as a Rock-star genius, which works very well (I've never found Shakespeare dull, anyway!);
- the many, many references to Shakespeare's plays (the Doctor keeps using phrases from Shakespeare's plays, which Will then says "I'll have that" (the Doctor refuses to let him "have" Dylan Thomas' line "Rage, rage, against the dying of the light" however);
- the fact that Shakespeare can't be fooled by the psychic paper (the implication being he's too much of a genius to fall for it);
- the various references to Harry Potter - including Martha saying at one point "It's all a bit Harry Potter", which prompts the Doctor to say that she'll love the seventh book and it made him cry;
- the Doctor referring to the film Back to the Future (my favourite film trilogy of all time) in order to explain to Martha that if the Carrionites' plot works, she will fade from history, as will the rest of humanity;
- Will flirting with Martha, calling her a "dark lady" (an allusion to the "Dark Lady" Sonnets) - and when the Doctor tries to hurry them both up saying "We can all have a good flirt later", Will asks "Is that a promise Doctor?" The Doctor sighs and says "57 academics just punched the air" - a meta-reference to scholarly debates about Shakespeare's sexuality;
- the fact that the Doctor never actually uses his brand new Sonic Screwdriver, despite the trip being made, in part, to road-test it (though he does pull a toothbrush from his inside jacket pocket when Martha comments she doesn't have one with her for their overnight stay in 1599);
- the FX and the wonderful scenery (the Globe theatre scenes were shot at the real Globe, the 16th century street scenes were shot in Coventry).

What didn't work so well:
- the Doctor's use of Dylan Thomas' line doesn't actually fit the death that had occurred - and though I love the poem, it's a bit naff, because it's just an excuse for the Doctor to tell Will "you can't have that";
- the Doctor's reference to Rose knowing the exact right thing to say to him when he's trying to work out what's going on (totally crass - I know he loved Rose and is missing her, but it's still crass!) and his "Oh I hate starting from scratch" comment when Martha asks what psychic paper is (he ought to be used to starting from scratch by now, the number of Companions he's had during 10 lifetimes!)
- the cackling of the three witches was so raucous at times that it got my nerves;
- the business of the Carrionites wanting to cross into our world and destroy humanity was a little too similar to the situation with the Gelth, in the Season 1 Dickens-centric episode, "The Unquiet Dead".

Overall, though, I loved this episode - it's gone straight into my Top Ten of New Who episodes (and may even oust my all-time-favourite from Season 2, Steve Moffatt's "The Girl in the Fireplace" - another historical story about a very clever person).


Anonymous said...

I thought this episode was a massive letdown after the first.
Martha Jones has been reduced from a real person in ep 1 to a cliche in ep 2-- she was so much better when in her normal everyday clothes than in this silly party get up she is now in.
The plot was weak, the acting (of Shakespeare) poor but above all the script was mediocre.

I'm back to half-watching after the promise of ep 1, what a disappointment.

I predict that by the end of the series, Martha will "be Rose", spouting the same scripts, just with a different character name. Pity.

Michele said...

I'm sorry you think so. I can't say that I agree with you on any of those points. Martha's asking intelligent questions about time travel - that's something Rose never did. The clothes she's wearing can hardly be helped, since he whisked her off without a change of clothes and they presumably don't think it's worth the bother of her digging something out of the TARDIS wardrobe for the sake of a one-off trip...